Top judge vows caution over death penalty

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2008, 12:00am

Strict controls to be maintained

The mainland's top judge has pledged caution in carrying out death penalties amid mounting international pressure for Beijing to drop the practice.

While praising efforts to establish a prudent capital-punishment regime after an overhaul of the system a year ago, Supreme People's Court president Xiao Yang told a national conference yesterday that 'capital punishment will continue, but our policy is that it will be controlled strictly and cautiously', Xinhua reported.

Sun Zhongwei, a prominent mainland lawyer specialising in the defence of inmates on death row, said it had been a consensus among the judicial authorities in the past two years to cut the number of executions after some wrongly convicted defendants were executed.

'However, there is not yet a set of concrete guidelines for local judicial authorities to follow through on such consensus,' he said.

Last January, the Supreme People's Court took back the power of final approval for death penalties that had been delegated to provincial high courts in the 1980s. The earlier transfer of approval rights had been blamed for wide-scale abuse of the system, leading to some highly publicised wrong convictions.

Since the court regained the right of review, Beijing appears to have exercised greater restraint over the use of death sentences. For the first time last year, mainland courts commuted more death sentences than they carried out.

International rights groups estimate the mainland annually executes between 5,000 and 12,000 people, more than any other country. Official statistics are not available.

Mr Xiao said the courts should make full use of the suspended death sentence 'with Chinese characteristics' to comply with the prudent policies on executions on the mainland.

While serious crimes must be 'resolutely punished' by executions, criminals who turned themselves in or who committed crimes of passion due to simple disputes should be considered for leniency, Mr Xiao said.

The top judge said the number of criminals given death sentences with a two-year reprieve so far this year, which usually becomes life imprisonment, had exceeded the total of immediate executions.

Capital punishment ought to be reserved for 'an extremely small number of serious offenders', he said, adding: 'The quality of initial and second trials of death penalty cases has improved ... and the quality of the final approvals has been guaranteed.'

Mr Sun said the mainland would eventually have to drop the practice to follow a growing international trend, although it was difficult to set a time frame.

A United Nations General Assembly panel passed a resolution in November calling for a moratorium on executions with the ultimate goal of abolishing the practice, despite fierce opposition from several members, including China.